Chapters:

Chapter 1

CHAPTER 1

Summoned by the wall, I find myself at its base once again. Today I pace back and forth like a hungry, captive lion awaiting its keeper. I have tried countless times to tally up the sections as I walk, but as a person who struggles to tap her trivial reserves of patience, I have never made it past one hundred before admitting defeat and heading home.

The thick mortar has started to crack in places near the base, and life has prevailed in the form of invasive weeds. I search half-heartedly for potential handholds that might allow me to summon my inner strength and, against all odds, scramble to the top. The top, which I cannot see from where I’m standing, even though I stare until my eyes start to burn in the bright sunlight.

A dark shape is slowly inching its way up the wall’s face and I stretch up on to my tiptoes, straining to focus my vision. I recognize the silhouette as that of a lizard. A cloud drifts across the sun, and my eyes find his. We remain transfixed for just a moment, a flash really, before he turns and scrambles up and out of view, leaving me behind.  

It is said that the Southern United States Security Barrier measures roughly fifty-five feet high and extends a substantial distance into the earth as well, but we were never privileged with the exact details. And no matter what images my mind has conjured up of the mysteries that dwell on the other side of this wall, or on the far side of its sister up north, I have no idea what waits there—none of us do. Those secrets belong to a select few. It could be a minefield for all we know—meticulously arranged to blow the legs off of anyone who makes it over.

In the beginning, in 2022 when it was first erected, they say the entirety of its length was rigorously patrolled for twenty-four hours a day. No more. Decades have passed, multiple generations have been born in its shadow, and it has become as natural part of the landscape as the wildflowers that innocently climb its base.

Few of us remember the feeling of freedom, and therefore few take the risk. Those who have challenged the wall in my lifetime were executed immediately or dragged into custody and charged with treason. Most were never heard from again. No one has made it over … or so they tell us.

“Stay where you are.” A large voice booms behind me and I freeze, my vision still focused on the gray expanse in front of me. “Hands above your head and turn around slowly. That’s right. Do as I say and no one gets hurt today.”

With my hands interlaced behind my head, I begin to pivot. A lump travels down my throat and settles in my chest. The eye of a directed energy weapon is pointed towards my neck. It’s being held by a compliance officer who towers a good head above me. From what I have witnessed in the past, his proximity is gratuitous, as the weapon has a firing range of at least twenty yards.

“Unauthorized persons are not permitted within fifty meters of the barrier. Explain yourself,” he says roughly. I do not recognize his face. He is not an officer that I have dealt with before.

“My name is Patricia Evans, tier three. I am here collecting a monthly soil sample for the resource division. I can show you my idecation and my full marked vial if permitted to reach into my pocket.” The fear resulting from standing on the receiving end of the trigger never diminishes.

He considers this for a minute. “One hand, and make it slow.”

With five fingers still atop my head, I slowly lower an arm, reach into my pocket and pull out my device. As I do so, the small vial of soil tumbles to the ground.

“Stay where you are. Kick it over this way.” The officer reaches one hand out, his weapon still trained with the other. I place my device in his outstretched fingers and then carefully kick the vial in his direction. He examines my credentials and I watch in anticipation as his face relaxes and he lowers his weapon.

“It looks like your work here is done, Miss Evans. I expect that you will be departing now.” He takes a step forward and hands back my idecation device and vial. Without another word, he turns and walks away.

An audible exhalation escapes my mouth.  

I wipe my clammy palms off on the sides of my slacks and hurriedly cross the wide buffer zone between the wall and the developed sector of town. All trees and buildings within three hundred meters of the 3,200-kilometer-long barrier were demolished to discourage escape attempts.

I grasp my hair and twist it into a reddish golden coil and secure it with a pencil I grab from my back pocket. It is unseasonably hot, and the gentle breeze on my neck does little to stave off my rapidly rising body temperature. May has been dry this year. The earth beneath my feet is cracked with thirst. I take the final paces to my car, swipe the back of my hand against the handle and hear a click, indicating that my identity has been verified and my car is unlocked.

The drive home takes thirty minutes. I turn up the radio to distract myself from the thoughts that always fill my mind when I leave the wall. My occupation allows me a certain amount of leeway when it comes to travel; I can go to places most others cannot. But, my access to the wall is still restricted to the occasional assignment that takes place in its vicinity. My route takes me past factory farmland, solar array fields, and wind farms, before a sign welcomes me to the city limits, and the scene around me shifts drastically. My vehicle slows to a crawl as I approach a long line of cars that congests the opposite lane as commuters inch their way home after work. Large billboards hover in the sky above me, one of them advertising the opening of a new holographic movie at the cinema this weekend, another boasting of free one-day shipping for cabinet and refrigerator items ordered by midnight.

As I approach a red light I notice a group of children huddled on the sidewalk to my right outside a café—waiting to be seated for dinner, I presume. They look to be ten or twelve. One of the girls is fixing another’s hair while a boy plays with the dial on the bottom of her shirt, causing her tank top to ripple from purple to green. A group of compliance officers stand a block away, one watching the children attentively, ready to pounce if necessary.

After coming to a stop in my driveway, I slowly open the car door. The white-hot air that enveloped me less than an hour ago, has been replaced by a comfortable warmth and the golden curtain of an evening sunset. I step out of the car—a few deep breaths in the sunshine restore my inner balance, displacing the residual anxiety I still held after my encounter with the compliance officer. I stand with my eyes closed, letting the setting sun’s farewell rays bathe my eyelids and cheeks. Breathe. In and out.

I choose to ignore for a few more moments the hunger pangs as they try to remind me of the fact that I have put off going to the grocery store for several days. Soon, I will scour the cabinets to assemble an acceptable meal from my scarce supply of food. Suddenly an image, of one of the billboards I passed on the way home, arises in my mind, and the clarity with which I remember every little detail defies logic, considering that I only gave it a passing glance.

Surveying the yard, I scan for signs of new growth. Each bright May day brings subtle, beautiful changes to my home—a small townhouse with a postage stamp plot of land I have planted almost to capacity. I force my resistant, slow-to-yield body to bend over and pick a mint sprig from the overgrown bunch beneath my kitchen window. My other hand briefly grazes the earth. I instinctively pinch a bit of soil and rub it between my fingers and thumb. Dry, sandy. I glance over at the newly planted herb sprouts that line the edges of the walkway, my very own welcome committee when I arrive home after a long day. “They look thirsty,” I say to myself as I march to the outside faucet.

Watering absorbs all my attention. My garden is a soothing, satisfying place for me. Nourishing vegetables that will one day nourish me—a perfect relationship, though always too short lived. Once the excruciating heat of summer begins and the water restrictions set in, produce merely one week from maturity will be left to shrivel and dry, a sight that always elicits feelings of remorse as I mentally prepare to eat bland processed food for months on end. So, with the summer often a lost cause, I try to make the most out of my spring garden.

Once I start pouring, it is hard to stop. Patches of cracked and gritty dirt transform into moist, dark soil ready to share its nutrients with the roots that reach out to it. The already satiated bits of soil make the rest of the ground look thirstier than it did moments before. I start with a small bed located under my front bay window, and continue until every plant in the yard has been given a momentary respite from the aridity of the Southwest.

Gardening is an expensive hobby practiced by few. The minerals that must be added to the depleted soil for it to yield successful results cost more government credits than most can afford. As I pick a strawberry from the patch near my front door, I take a moment to feel grateful for my Tier 3 employment, which affords me such luxuries.

As I walk through my front door and into my kitchen, the pangs of hunger strike again, accompanied by another mental image of the billboard. I open the pantry doors, then the cupboards, and finally the refrigerator. I repeat this process twice more, as if hoping that magical ingredients will somehow jump out at me in a moment of clarity, the perfect elements to concoct a quick and delicious meal. Eventually I give up, open the freezer, and grab at random.

After plopping down on the sofa in front of the television set with a reheated dinner-for-one, I settle in for the day’s mandatory viewing segment—a thirty-minute episode of All One: Helping America Succeed. I swipe my hand in front of the screen, and with my identity verified, the programming begins to play.

A car commercial precedes today’s episode, featuring a new silver economy vehicle with a wraparound solar array, virtually seamless against the vehicle’s exterior style, that allows it to run twenty percent longer than last year’s model. Up next is a quick local promotion about the upcoming baseball game and the abundance of joys that await those who attend, including an enhanced firework experience, premier seventh-inning entertainment, and copious amounts of snack food.

Then the National Emblem lights up the screen, and an announcer introduces Aelia Ramey. A petite woman, gorgeous and in her mid-twenties with an elegant crop of dove-white hair, appears.

“Welcome, Americans! Today’s topic is ‘The Family Dinner Table.’ We’ll explore ten conversation topics that will bring you and your loved ones closer as you enjoy a family meal together.” Behind Aelia a video is running of a family of four at their dinner table, laughing, smiling, and enjoying each other’s company in a manner clearly staged for the audience.

“I suggest taking notes and keeping a list in the dining room for when conversation starts to lag—you don’t want to be left to your own wiles now!” Aelia says with a laugh and a wink. “First up, we have the good old-fashioned sharing of one’s day.” The words sharing your day pop up next to a #1 on the floor-to-ceiling screen behind Aelia. “Kids can share with their parents what they learned from their virtual instructors on the subjects of math, English, patriotism, and communication skills—this is a great time for parents to help children master the art of acceptable conversation! Older children can discuss how they are preparing for their aptitude tests! Parents, you can share what you did at work today, and how your role helps make America the greatest, safest, most united nation on Earth.”

I take a nibble of my reheated frozen dinner, which, to be honest, is about as appetizing as sawdust. “A second great topic of conversation is the weather,” Aelia continues. “For example, you might say, ‘It looks like our dry spell will continue.’ Weather is an excellent conversation topic, and it’s one that naturally changes daily. Rain one day and sun the next—why, the possibilities are virtually endless!”

Number three!” Aelia gestures excitedly as a #3 and the words onscreen friends are added to the list behind her. “What is going on in the lives of your favorite television characters? Discussing onscreen friends makes for a fun and entertaining way to connect with your family members. ‘What do you think will happen in next week’s episode?’ Remember, all programming is government approved for your enjoyment, and automatically filtered based on the age of the viewer! Just be sure that everyone watching has registered by swiping their dorsal chip.”

Aelia continues through her list, and I feign interest as I let my mind wander, hearing words like “baseball” and “fashion” tossed out as potential topics of conversation in the background. While the program is playing I can feel the living room camera’s lens focusing on me, its presence as intense as a magnifying glass directing the heat of the sun directly onto my forehead. Eventually I hear the standard sign off, “Thank you for making time to join me today. We are all one, united,” followed by, “I look forward to tomorrow, when we will discuss going to the zoo, seeing the native and non-native animals, and how a ‘native’ sign signals that there is more to learn! This is Aelia Ramey, and I will see you tomorrow!”

The program ends. Out of habit I scroll through the other entertainment options, searching for something to pique my interest. Sporting events to catch up on, the latest episode of a sitcom, a romantic movie, maybe a holographic video game. After a few halfhearted attempts to engage, I opt to wolf down my dinner and call it an early night.

I fall into a fitful sleep—a regular occurrence resulting from what my parents deemed an “overactive imagination” that I was sure to grow out of. Well, here I am, thirty-one years old, and the volume of vivid imagery floating around in my mind has only increased with the years. I toss and I turn, rearranging my pillows, throwing one leg over the blanket and then, moments later, back under it again. I fuss with the sweaty hair stuck to my neck, hoping that this was somehow the missing link impeding my sleep. After some time, maybe minutes, maybe an hour, sleep finally envelopes me.

Suddenly I am ten years old, surrounded by my classmates in our virtual science class. We are all fully engrossed in the screens in front of us, already habitualized to know the difference between the time for learning and the time for socializing. We listen to the lecture through our individual headphones, tapping the screen when prompted to provide the answer to a question. Our classroom facilitator, Maro, stands in the corner. He has followed our particular group of twenty since we began our education at the age of seven. He periodically walks up behind each of us, patting our shoulders and providing encouragement. Our childish squabbles provoked by the restlessness of our young bodies are intercepted with firm, understanding kindness.

The door swings open abruptly and two compliance officers storm in.

“Officers,” Maro begins, obviously taken aback. “As you can see, I am in the middle of a virtual session. How many I assist you?”

 The compliance officers roughly grab hold of Maro, pushing him up against the wall. They lean their faces in close on either side of his, speaking words into his ear. We cannot hear the words, but the rough tone enables us to grasp the tenor of the conversation.

“I’m innocent. I swear. I have proof. Please, please. Not in front of the children.”

We watch in silence, as we were taught. My neighbor’s small, shaking hand grasps mine underneath the table and I feel the tears welling up in my eyes. Moments later, with his head hanging and his body trembling, Maro’s arms are wrangled behind his back and clasped together. He is dragged through the classroom doorway and out of our lives forever.

I wake up shaking. My sweaty t-shirt is stuck to my body. I claw at the neck, willing the air to circulate. Maro has not crossed my mind in several years and I wonder why he appeared in my dreams tonight. Even after so much time, his memory elicits a feeling akin to having a fifty-pound weight dropped onto my chest. I never found why he was taken into custody or what happened to him. That information does not exist for us.

My clammy hands paw the nightstand for the glass of water. I turn on a light to get my bearings and drink slowly, absorbing the reassuringly familiar image of my bedroom.

As I settle back into sleep, flashes of an unknown life ebb and flow through my consciousness. I find myself transported to a café, sitting in a cast-iron chair and casually sipping coffee, surrounded by a myriad of peculiar people I don’t know. They are speaking a language I have never heard. In my dream, I understand every word, and I luxuriate in their conversation. And their laughter.